Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reaching for the SKY

South Korea focuses on quality over reducing class sizes

Within South Korea, the three most prestigious universities are Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Collectively, they are referred to by the acronym SKY.

Graduating from a SKY university often leads to a prestigious job with a high salary --especially if the graduate is in the field of education. Opinion polls show that South Koreans view teachers as high-status professionals who make greater contributions to society than any other profession. I recently visited the SKY universities to learn why SouthKoreans feel this way.

"In Korea, we have a Confucian tradition of respecting teachers," said LimCheolil, associate professor of education at Seoul National University.

Beyond tradition, South Korea actively raises the status of teaching as a profession by doing two things. First, it makes entry to teacher training very selective. Teachers are recruited from the top 5 percent of each high-school graduate class. Second, teachers are paid generous starting salaries of 141 percent of GDP per capita, which is significantly above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 95 percent.

Making teacher training selective and paying teachers high starting salaries attracts the strongest candidates to the teaching profession,which is important because teacher quality significantly impacts student outcomes.

South Korea is able to pay teachers high starting salaries because it employs relatively fewer teachers than other nations. As a result, the student-teacher ratio in South Korea is 30:1, compared to the OECD averageof 17:1.

It's a smart tradeoff because studies show that teacher quality has significantly more impact on student outcomes than class size. Dollar fordollar, it's better to attract a small number of outstanding teachers with high starting salaries than to attract a large number of mediocre teachers with lower starting salaries --even if that means having a high student-teacher ratio.

In education-obsessed South Korea, the potential for earning a lot of money as a teacher is great. For example, 46-year-old math instructor and cram school tutor Woo Hyeong-cheol makes $4 million a year teaching Web-based classes. His salary is higher than most of the top professional baseball players in South Korea. And he's just as famous.

Teaching is more than just a high-status profession with a high starting salary in South Korea; it's also one of the most stable careers. Lee SangMin, assistant professor of education at Korea University, said: "After the economic crisis in 1997, most Koreans considered stability as the most important thing when choosing a job. Therefore, many university students pursue teaching positions in elementary, middle, and high school."

Lee Sungho H., professor of education at Yonsei University, agreed: "The most critical reason for being a teacher is job stability. Teachers are guaranteed retirement at age 62. In addition, teaching provides fringe-benefits such as summer and winter vacations, a fixed daily time schedule,and a good pension."

South Korea's high level of respect for teachers is an exemplar for other nations that want to improve student outcomes.


How the Campuses Helped Ruin California’s Economy

All across the country there were demonstrations on March 4 by students (and some faculty) against cuts in higher education funding, but inevitably attention focused on California, where the modern genre originated in 1964. I joined the University of California faculty in 1966 and so have watched a good many of them, but have never seen one less impressive that this year’s. In 1964 there was focus and clarity. This one was brain-dead. The former idealism and sense of purpose had degenerated into a self-serving demand for more money at a time when both state and university are broke, and one in eight California workers is unemployed. The elite intellectuals of the university community might have been expected to offer us insight into how this problem arose, and realistic measures for dealing with it. But all that was on offer was this: get more money and give it to us. Californians witnessing this must have wondered whether the money they were already providing was well spent where there was so little evidence of productive thought.

The content vacuum with filled with the standby language of past demonstrations, and so there was much talk of “the struggle,” and of “oppression,” and—of course—of racism. “We are all students of color now” said Berkeley’s Professor Ananya Roy, and a student proclaimed that this crisis represented “structural racism.” (Why not global warming too?) Berkeley’s Chancellor Birgeneau called the demonstrations “the best of our tradition of effective civil action.” Neither Chancellors nor demonstrations are what they used to be. The nostalgia for the good old days surfaced again in efforts to shut the campus down by blocking the entrance of UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the old “shut it down” cry was somewhat misplaced when keeping it fully open was what the present demonstration was about, but then this was not an occasion when anyone seemed to have any idea of what they were trying to achieve.

One group at UCLA stumbled into the truth, though it was a truth they did not understand. At Bruin Plaza a crowd chanted “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power.” In its context this was just another slogan of a mindless day, but the reality is that those people do indeed have the power, and routinely use it in a way that makes them the author of their own troubles. Let me explain.

Unemployment in California is still rising. It just went up from 12.3 to 12.5%, nearly three points above an already bad national average. This horrendous figure is the source of California’s budget problem. The huge loss of tax revenue is compounded by greatly increased unemployment outlays. If we look at the few other states that have unemployment figures well above the national average, there are obvious explanations. Michigan is at 14.6 because employment in its major industry (automobiles) has collapsed. Nevada, at 13.0, is dependent on discretionary cash at a time when there isn’t any. But California is too big to be dominated by one industry, and its plight can only be explained by the state’s having grossly mismanaged its affairs.

In 2007 Raymond Keating formulated a Small Business Survival Index, which is a composite of various aspects of the climate for business in a particular state: business and personal taxes, regulations, mandates, and so on. In that index California ranked 49 among the 50 states. Rhode Island ranked just above California, and its unemployment rate is 12.7. At the bottom of the Index is D.C., and its unemployment rate is 12.1.

In the component parts of the SBSI index, California ranks worst of 51 (including D.C.) on top personal tax rates, worst on top capital gains tax rates, 42 on corporate taxes, 43 on health insurance mandates, 46 on electric utility costs, 47 on workman’s compensation costs, rock bottom again on state gas taxes, 45 on state and local government five year spending trends, and 47 on state and local per capita government spending. It also ranks 49 among the states on the US Economic freedom index, and it has the highest state sales tax rate too: where some states have an income tax but no sales tax, and others have a sales tax but no income tax, California has both, AND it has the highest rates in both.

In short, California is a disaster for business. The state has piled up so many taxes, regulations and mandates that businesses are leaving the state. Just this week I learned that a spare part order for my Lennox fireplace is delayed because Lennox is moving this division of its business to Tennessee. Wealthy individuals are also fleeing the state to avoid the country’s highest tax bracket. When both wealth and wealth creation leave the state, tax revenues leave with them.

How has this happened? As everyone knows by now, California has a dysfunctional legislature. Already in 2003—well before the current national crisis, and when the national unemployment rate was only 5.9%—California was bankrupt, and spending was so out of control that a Governor was recalled. The legislature enacts every politically correct whim that comes into its head, loading on one mandate and regulation after another. Cap and Trade could not pass nationally, but the California legislature proudly passed its job-killing global warming bill.

That is why the state now has a budget crisis of staggering proportions, and why university students are seeing those large fee hikes. But why is the California legislature so irresponsible, not to say goofy? Well, California is extremely rich in state university campuses: the UC and CSUC systems alone amount to 33 campuses, about a third of them mega-campuses of 30-35 thousand students, with another 10 around 20,000. The mega-campuses completely dominate the Assembly districts they are in, and their large concentrations of students and faculty skew the district electorate not just to the left, but to the devoutly politically correct but hopelessly unrealistic left. Virtually all of them routinely send Democrats to Sacramento. College towns with more modest sized campuses play their part too, but mega-campuses make their districts so one-sided that in the last election UC Berkeley’s Assembly seat had no election even though it was vacant: the Democratic nominee still ran unopposed. Where there is real competition between the parties the two sides keep each other honest and realistic, but when Assembly seats are so inevitably left that there is no contest, there is nothing to stop the side that has automatic electability from sliding into fantasy. Those districts provide the margin that allows an immature leftism that has lost contact with reality to control the state legislature and ruin the business climate of the state.

The irony here really cries out for attention: a large state university system needs a free market economy that hums along in top gear so that the revenue needed to support it can be generated. But California’s two unusually well developed state university systems provide enormous local voting power in many Assembly districts for a bitterly anti-capitalist ideology that sabotages the California economy. The campuses are shooting themselves in the foot. The power that those students and faculty chanted about is indeed theirs, and if they used it to elect sensible assemblymen and state senators their problems would be solved by the healthy business climate that would result. The votes that they actually cast are the source of their troubles.

Only one idea for solving the funding crisis was floated on March 4. It was to repeal the state’s requirement that taxes can only be raised by a two thirds vote, so that taxes can be raised yet again and more money made available to the campuses. In other words, let’s make the funding crisis even worse, by driving out of California even more wealth and wealth creating capacity, and raising the unemployment level even more. “California is not a tax-heavy state,” said Assemblyman Joe Coto, whose office is right next door to San Jose State University, which enrolls 31,000 students. And that raises the question: how much longer will the California citizenry want to support a system of higher education that keeps its legislature stuck on stupid? It’s not a question for this state alone.


More than half of final British High School exams sat at private schools are graded A

More than half of A-level examinations sat at independent schools are graded A, new figures indicate.

They also show the extent to which fee-paying and selective schools dominate the best grades at A level, and the extent to which intensive coaching can help students to achieve top marks.

The figures, from Cambridge Assessment, one of the main examination boards, were released as a survey showed that pupils from independent schools were expected to do exceptionally well in achieving the new A* grade at A level this summer. A survey of A-level marks at 20 schools, conducted by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference of leading independent schools, found that between almost a third and two thirds of students were expected to achieve A* grades. Half of students sitting A levels in further mathematics at several of the most selective independent schools, for example, had already achieved high enough marks to guarantee A* grades.

Students who sat maths Alevel modules in January, and who received their marks late last week, will be awarded A* grades if they achieved at least 90 per cent in each of their A2 modules. They must also have scored at least 80 per cent overall, including at AS level.

The Cambridge figures also showed that more than one in eight A-level candidates now achieve three A grades. Yet of this group, more than a quarter went to grammar schools — which teach fewer than one in ten of the school population. At the same time, more than a third of students achieving straight A grades were from independent schools, which educate just 13 per cent.

The Cambridge figures showed that, overall, the number of A-level candidates awarded an A grade rose by about one percentage point every year between 2006 and 2009. There was a corresponding increase in B grades, and a fall in papers graded C, D, E or U.

At City of London School for Boys, 67 per cent of students sitting further maths have already achieved an A* grade in maths. A similar proportion did so at Magdalen College School, Oxford, while between 60 and 65 per cent did so at Manchester Grammar School, whose High Master, Christopher Ray, conducted the survey.

Candidates studying further maths are likely to be among the brightest candidates. The figures suggest students from leading independent schools will continue to win disproportionate numbers of places at the most selective universities.


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